Northern Ireland: the case for change has never been so great

By Deirdre Lynskey, Queen’s University Belfast

There’s a meme going around Facebook at the moment:

Voting is not marriage – it’s public transport.  You are not waiting for “the one” who is perfect. You are getting the bus; if there isn’t one going exactly to your destination, you don’t stay at home and sulk – you take the one going closest to where you want to be.

(For some in Northern Ireland voting is about marriage – but that’s’ a different story!)

With less than two weeks to go before we put an X in a box, I wanted to share with you some insights from across the water.

Northern Ireland exports over 30% of its 18 years to universities in GB with only a third of those returning on completion of their study. In March this year we launched the Belfast Region City Deal, with the UK government committing £350 million of funding to support and encourage economic development, creating jobs and boosting prosperity. However, without a Northern Ireland Assembly in place (1046 days and counting) now it is not possible to secure the commitment to specific funding commitments. It also requires local partners and Government to invest up to £500 million and the Executive to match fund the initial £350 million, so we are on the bus, the engine is running, but we are just not moving yet!

Northern Ireland faces challenges; our productivity levels historically fall below the UK national average and our levels of economic inactivity are the highest in the UK.  Approximately 16% of adults have no qualifications and we have a potential skills gap meaning that the nature of the jobs in the region’s economy increasingly require educational qualifications. 

The level of regional investment in the drivers of innovation in both business and higher education remains comparatively low. Investment is essential to maintain our excellent tourism products and attractions (if you were not at the FACE conference 2016, you really must come and visit!) to increase new markets and nurture new kinds of tourism. Several of our towns are in need of regeneration and finally our physical, digital infrastructure needs development, including updated transport links, and services. 

Students who normally live in Northern Ireland pay £4,275 per annum if attending a local institution. The cost is low because we have the maximum student number (MaSN) control mechanism in place, restricting the number of full-time undergraduate students at each institution.  This system offers little flexibility to institutions in responding to changes in demand, which is exactly what the Belfast Region City Deal is doing and it does not provide equitable opportunity to our learners in Northern Ireland. Professor Brian Murphy, puts it much more succinctly than me. Our current system is not only  failing our most economically disadvantaged students, it is stalling our potential to grow socially and economically.

So, on 12th December,  I don’t intend to stay at home and sulk. Instead I will get on the bus that’s been driven by the party who is going in the general direction of travel that I want to go in… (I particularly like mountains) so the party who is committed to taking on the hike gets my vote.

Finally, let me leave you with the Northern Ireland Skills Barometer, one of our drivers in the development of careers education.

Deirdre Lynskey is FACE Vice-Chair and Student Development Manager at Queen’s University Belfast

Image credit: Parker Johnson

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